Thursday, August 5, 2021

Camille (1921)

The 1921 Metro Pictures silent version of Camille starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino has been overshadowed by the 1936 Greta Garbo version. While Garbo’s Camille is unquestionably one of the greatest romance movies ever made the 1921 version is in many ways a much more extraordinary movie. It is a bizarre masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece.

Camille is of course based on the immensely popular 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas fils.

Marguerite Gautier (Nazimova) is the most celebrated courtesan in Paris. Young Armand Duval (Valentino) falls in love with her and wants to marry her. His father, a man of wealth and high social position, is horrified. Marguerite is, after all, a prostitute.

And Marguerite is very ill. She has consumption and it is highly likely she will not live.

It’s not a complicated plot but it’s more than sufficient to make this one of the great love stories.

Alla Nazimova was, for a brief moment, a very very big Hollywood star indeed. In the early 1920s she took complete control of her own career (and she had the star power to do so) and began producing her own movies. And, according to some accounts, she was in practice the director as well. She then made a couple of movies which were spectacular flops but which later came to be recognised as masterpieces of a very strange and fascinating kind. The most notorious of these movies was her unbelievably outrageous 1922 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s already outrageous play Salomé. Her career as a star was over by the mid-20s.

Whether Nazimova was a great actress or a terrible actress is an irrelevant question. Nazimova was Nazimova. She invented her own style. Pete Townshend once said that Keith Moon was the world’s greatest Keith Moon-style drummer. You could just as accurately say that Nazimova was the greatest Nazimova-style actress of all time. Whether you like her style or not it certainly attracts attention. Camille is a Nazimova movie. It has her fingerprints all over it.

As extraordinary as Nazimova was you could argue that the real star of this movie is art director and costume designer Natacha Rambova. The look of Camille is entirely Rambova’s work and it’s one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. If you think you love art deco all I can say is that you haven’t seen art deco until you’ve seen Natacha Rambova’s interpretation of art deco.Even in an age of extraordinary women Rambova was something special. She was a true visionary. The word genius is overused but she was a genius. She later became a distinguished Egyptologist.

She is of course more famous for having later married Valentino. Scandalous rumours about the couple and about Rambova’s alleged bisexuality abounded, most of which are almost certainly untrue. What is true is that there was nothing ordinary about either Rambova or Valentino.

Which brings us back to Nazimova, whose personal life was (you guessed it) also scandalous and flamboyant. She almost certainly was bisexual. And in the case of Nazimova her sexuality really is relevant to an appreciation of her as an actress. Exotic ambiguous flamboyant sexuality was an integral part of her style.

As for Valentino, he was in my view a remarkably underrated actor. He was first and foremost a star but given the right material the man could act.

The 1921 version of Camille is included as an extra with the Warner Home Video release of the 1936 Garbo version which makes the disc an absolute must-buy. The transfer of the 1921 version, given the fact that we’re lucky the film has survived at all, is pretty good. Which matters because this movie is such a spectacular visual experience.

The 1921 Camille has enormous historical significance. Nazimova, Natacha Rambova and Valentino are crucial figures in Hollywood (and indeed cinematic) history. If you love movies you have to sample their work. And in its own delightfully strange and idiosyncratic way it’s a great movie and a very entertaining one. It’s very very melodramatic and it’s a three-hankie weepie but it’s very highly recommended.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Abdul the Damned (1935)

Abdul the Damned is a 1935 British historical drama/biopic directed by Karl Grune. It is the story of the latter days of the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the last Sultan to possess effective power over the Ottoman Empire. More specifically the movie takes place against the background of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.

As the movie opens the Sultan has caved in to pressure to restore the constitution and has appointed the Young Turk politician and reformer Hilmi Pasha (Charles Carson) as Grand Vizier.

Fritz Kortner plays Abdul Hamid II and also plays Kelar, an actor who serves as the Sultan’s double (there were numerous assassination attempts against the Sultan’s life so having a double was a sensible precaution).

Yet another assassination attempt fails, with Kelar being shot and wounded instead of Abdul Hamid.

The Sultan may have appeared to have given in to the demands of the Young Turks but he intends to destroy them, and his plans to do so are devious and subtle. His plans are to be carried out by his ruthless Chief of Police Kadar-Pasha (Nils Asther).

There’s also a romance sub-plot. A beautiful Viennese opera singer, Therese Alder (Adrienne Ames), has caught the Sultan’s eye but Therese is in love with a young Turkish officer, Captain Talak-Bey (John Stuart). When the Sultan decides that he wants a woman he expects to get her. There is some subtlety to the relationship between the Sultan and Therese - her feelings towards him are a mixture of horror, repulsion, sympathy and affection.

It’s Fritz Kortner’s performance (or rather performances) that provide the main attraction. He’s delightfully sinister but with a certain roguish charm. Abdul Hamid is cruel and ruthless but he is a fighter and we have to have a certain respect for his determination to survive. And, in his own way, he does believe that the empire needs him. Kortner makes him a fascinating and magnetic personality, with a surprising but genuine element of tragedy.

Nils Asther as the Chief of Police is just as impressive - smooth but utterly devoid of scruples. The whole cast is extremely good.

There were no less than six writers involved in this movie, including Emeric Pressburger and Curt Siodmak.

Karl Grune had an interesting career as a director from 1919 until 1936 after which time he turned to producing.

Abdul the Damned is visually very impressive. The sets and costumes are marvellous but Grune also adds some imaginative touches. There’s a very clever scene early on, with Fritz Kortner as both Abdul Hamid and Kelar being reflected in multiple mirrors. And there’s a wonderful tracking shot at the opera.

This is a very lavish production. There was some serious money spent on this movie, and spent well.

The trick with an historical movie is making the ending work without making a mockery of the actual historical facts. Abdul the Damned pulls off this trick very adroitly. I liked the ending very much.

It should be noted that this is not an adventure movie as such, although it does have some suspense. It’s more of a historical drama with international intrigue set against a backdrop of revolution.

Abdul the Damned is included as a bonus movie in VCI’s three-disc Special Edition DVD release of the bizarre but intriguing 1934 British musical Chu Chin Chow. Since Chu Chin Chow is well worth seeing and the Special Edition is well worth buying you might as well give Abdul the Damned a watch since effectively you’re getting it for nothing. The transfer of Abdul the Damned is reasonably decent. Abdul the Damned has also been released individually by Network in the UK.

Abdul the Damned is an excellent and very handsome historical drama with a great lead performance by Fritz Kortner. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Fly-Away Baby (1937)

Fly-Away Baby (later retitled Crime in the Clouds) is the second of Warner Brothers B-movies featuring ace girl reporter Torchy Blane. It was released in 1937.

A jeweller has been murdered, and $250,000 worth of diamonds have been stolen. Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) figures it was a professional jewel heist. His reporter girlfriend Torchy has the idea that maybe Lucien "Sonny" Croy (Gordon Oliver) is the real culprit. Croy is a reporter as well, of sorts. Actually his father owns a newspaper and has put him to work much against his will. Croy has a motive for the murder but he also has an alibi.

Croy has come up with a publicity stunt for his paper - an attempt to set a record for circumnavigating the globe by commercial air services.

Rival reporter Hughie Sprague (Hugh O’Connell) has decided to turn the round-the-world trip into a two-way race. And Torchy persuades her publisher to let her make it a three-way race. Torchy hopes that in the course of the race she will be able to gather the evidence to prove her theory correct.

There actually turns out to be a fourth unofficial racer. Gahagan (Tom Kennedy), McBride’s police driver, has resigned from the force to take up a new career as a private detective. Gahagan is the Torchy Blane series’ regular comic relief character and his presence is entirely irrelevant and fails to provide anything more than very mild amusement.

That’s pretty much it for the plot, and as a mystery plot it’s terribly thin. In fact the race around the world is as much as anything an attempt to add some excitement to the film and to distract the audience’s attention away from the deficiencies of the plotting. This attempt at least partially succeeds and it does add a certain air of some glamour and exoticism, through the magic of stock footage.

Aviation buffs will enjoy seeing lots of (stock footage) shots of DC-3s and Pan Am Clipper flying boats and they will get even more of a buzz from the climax on board a zeppelin. I’ve long maintained that no movie that features zeppelins can ever be considered a total failure.

The great strength of the movie is the superb chemistry between Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane. They appeared together in seven of the nine Torchy Blane films. Once again Torchy and McBride are about to get married but every time that happens either Torchy gets the scent of a hot story or McBride gets distracted by a new murder case so we get the feeling that somehow they never are actually going to get hitched.

In Frederick Nebel’s original stories McBride (actually it was MacBride in Nebel’s stories) was the hero and he had a boozy male reporter sidekick named Kennedy. Turning the sidekick into an attractive woman and making her the lead character was a pretty shrewd move on the part of the producers of the movie series.

The stock footage is utilised pretty well. The zeppelin sets (presumably left over from some A-picture) look good.

The race-around-the-world idea is a bit lame. How is it a race if all three contestants take the same scheduled commercial flights? That angle really needed a bit more work.

The Warner Archive Torchy Blane DVD set includes all nine films. Fly-Away Baby gets a very good transfer. Image and sound quality are fine.

Fly-Away Baby is a bit disappointing after the first film in the series, Smart Blonde, but Farrell and MacLane are so good that they manage to carry it off and it’s kinda fun. Recommended.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Cosh Boy (1953)

Cosh Boy (also released under the title The Slasher) is a British juvenile delinquent crime B-movie which is notable for giving 19-year-old Joan Collins one of her first starring rôles.

The movie start with one of those amusing public service announcement type warnings about the dangers of juvenile delinquency and how it’s all caused by parents being too soft.

Roy Walsh (James Kenney) leads a juvenile delinquent gang which specialises in coshing old ladies. Roy and his pal Alfie get picked up by the cops after one of their robberies and placed on probation. One of the terms of the probation is that they have to attend a local youth club. Roy thinks the youth club could have possibilities - if they attend regularly they can use it to provide alibis for their crimes.

At the youth club Roy meets Alfie’s gorgeous kid sister Rene and falls for her. The trouble is that Rene already has a boyfriend, Brian. And Brian is not a loser like Roy.

Roy decides that something will have to be done about Brian.

Rene ends up falling for Roy anyway because, you know, it’s the bad boy thing. And she convinces herself that he loves her. Rene is supposed to be only sixteen so it’s plausible enough that she’d make some disastrous choices.

The amusing thing about Roy’s criminal plans is that they always require someone other than Roy to take all the risks. He justifies this by explaining that he’s the brains of the outfit.

Roy’s mother Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) has been dating a Canadian guy named Bob Stevens (Robert Ayres) and this upsets Roy very much indeed. He thinks it’s disgusting. After all his mother is really really old - she’s in her thirties! Roy’s displeasure may also have something to do with the fact that Bob knows Roy is a worthless little punk. Bob has made it clear that if he marries Elsie he won’t take any nonsense from Roy. Roy is afraid of Bob, as he’s afraid of anyone who stands up to him.

As you’d expect Roy and his gang get into more violent crimes and the romance between Roy and Rene has predictable results. The world is closing in on Roy and he’s getting more desperate, and more scared. When it comes down to it Roy is a complete coward.

This was a fairly early (but very competent) directorial effort for Lewis Gilbert who went on to have a distinguished and varied career. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Vernon Harris. The screenplay holds no great surprises but in 1953 it was pretty hard-hitting. In fact teenage thugs beating up old ladies is still pretty hard-hitting.

There’s nothing noir about this film. Or at least there’s nothing noir about the content - Roy is a vicious little thug right from the start and he’s a loser right from the start. He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The style is somewhat noir with plenty of night scenes and shadows.

James Kenney’s performance as Roy is excessive but effective. He manages to convince us that Roy really is not just vicious but totally out of control.

Joan Collins is good but doesn’t get too many opportunities to spread her acting wings. Rene is naïve but he doesn’t deserve a loser like Roy. Betty Ann Davies has a very unsympathetic part since the movie makes it quite clear that Roy’s behaviour is entirely her fault for pandering to him and being unwilling to face the truth that he’s gone thoroughly bad.

There’s an amusing scene towards the end that reflects 1950s views on how to deal with juvenile delinquents. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t get away with in a film today.

Cosh Boy is part of Kino Lorber’s British Noir II boxed set (which also includes Vicious Circle, Time Is My Enemy, Time Lock and The Interrupted Journey). The transfer is quite acceptable.

This movie isn’t noir but it’s a good and fairly unflinching juvenile delinquent movie and it’s recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Hue and Cry (1947)

Hue and Cry, released in 1947 and directed by Charles Crichton, was the first of the famous Ealing comedies. Michael Balcon, head of production at Ealing, had not been thinking in terms of making a series of comedies but the success of Hue and Cry made such a series suddenly seem like a very good idea indeed.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) is a young man with a vivid imagination. When he swipes a comic book from a younger boy it sparks that imagination into overdrive. He’d love to be a famous detective like Selwyn Pike, the hero of the comic book (Selwyn Pike being obviously a Sexton Blake-type hero). And then he sees a van in the street, and it has the same licence number as the van that features in Selwyn Pike’s latest comic-book adventure! The van in the comic is being used to transport corpses. Maybe the van Joe saw isn’t being used for that exact purpose but it could be involved in some criminal endeavour. Joe thinks that’s practically a certainty.

Joe’s first attempt at playing amateur detective lands him in trouble with the police. The good-natured Detective Inspector Ford assures him that there’s no such licence plate as the one he saw, because there are no licence plated beginning with the letters GZ.

Joe talks things over with his pals and together they come up with an elaborate conspiracy theory involving secret codes that might explain that licence plate. By now Joe has pretty much convinced himself that it’s his destiny to be a great detective and that it will only be a matter of time before Detective Inspector Ford offers him a job with the Criminal Investigation Department.

Joe’s amateur sleuthing leads him to the man who wrote the comic book, Felix H. Wilkinson (Alastair Sim).

The youngsters think they’ve come up with a brilliant plan to foil a major criminal conspiracy but their plans backfires on them. But they’re not disheartened. They think they’ve figured out the identity of the diabolical criminal mastermind behind the whole thing.

There’s plenty of amusement to be had and the crime plot is pleasingly fast-paced. This is a movie bursting with energy, something that would have been appreciated by audiences living through the austerity of post-war Britain.

Alistair Sim gets top billing although he really only has a minor supporting rôle. But Sim had the star power the movie needed and while his appearances are brief they’re also brilliant.

The young actors are generally very good with Harry Fowler as Joe being a fine likeable hero whose boundless optimism and outrageous confidence in his powers as a detective carry him through all setbacks.

Charles Crichton went on to even greater success at Ealing with The Lavendar Hill Mob. He later had a very successful career as a television director.

T.E.B. Clarke wrote the screenplay and became one of Ealing’s most successful comedy writers. Crichton and Clarke worked together a number of times, with great success.

The location shooting (of which there’s quite a bit) provides some fascinating glimpses of immediate post-war London.

It’s not hard to see why this movie was a hit. Kids would have loved it as a light-hearted “kids playing at being detectives” romp while their parents would have enjoyed the comedy and the clever wittiness of the plot.

Hue and Cry has had a number of DVD and Blu-Ray releases and you should have no difficulty finding a copy.

This is a charming, witty and amusing movie. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Rivals (1963)

The Rivals is one of the Edgar Wallace thrillers from Britain’s Merton Park Studios. It was released in 1963 and it has a rather neat setup.

A gang has kidnapped Christina Neilson, the daughter of a wealthy man named Rolf Neilson. They’re about to deliver the ransom note along with the evidence that they hold the girl (the evidence being her beret with a distinctive gold brooch). It’s all done up in a neat package sitting in the glove compartment of their car. And then their car gets stolen.

The car was stolen by a couple of professional car thieves, Steve and Eddy, and they quickly discover the package. And they recognise its significance. They now figure that with this package in their possession they can collect the ransom themselves. Kim, the girlfriend of one of the car thieves, thinks it would have been more sensible to go to the police and of course she’s right. However the two young car thieves are blinded by greed and they decide to go ahead with their plan. It’s obviously a very dangerous game they’re playing.

In fact these two young tearaways have already run into danger without realising it. The took seconds to steal the car even though it was locked. That tells the kidnappers something very important. Their car was stolen by professionals. If you’re a member of the criminal classes you know the way other professional criminals operate and you also know how to track down other professional criminals.

Rolf Neilson has already decided to pay the ransom. But will he end up paying it to the right people? What will happen to his daughter if he pays it to the wrong people? What further mistakes will Steve and Eddy make? And what of the kidnappers - are they going to make mistakes as well?

This is a story where all the criminals have bright ideas that really should work but that unfortunate car theft sets off a chain reaction of trivial things that could spell disaster for one or both of the rival sets of criminals. Perhaps all of the criminals in this story are just not quite as smart as they think they are.

French-born director Max Varnel made a few low-budget features and then spent the rest of his career in television, initially in Britain and later in Australia. It’s difficult to fault the job he does here.

Screenwriter John Roddick did scripts for three of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies (including The Double) but he also ended up spending the bulk of his career in television, contributing scripts to plenty of notable series including The Saint, Danger Man, Z Cars and Paul Temple. His script for The Rivals is pleasingly clever and well-constructed.

It’s impossible to pick a standout performer in this film. All the performances are solid and effective.

The Rivals
is to be found in the fifth of Network’s wonderful Edgar Wallace DVD boxed sets and as usual the anamorphic transfer is very very good. The film is of course in black-and-white.

The Rivals is a fairly typical of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace flicks. Despite the very limited budget it’s tightly-constructed, well-acted and very professionally executed. Everything works as it should. The overall quality of this series of films is remarkably high and this is one of the very very good ones. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

elsewhere in the blogosphere

Michael’s Movie Palace has a review of the deliciously campy and trashy The Carpetbaggers (1964), a movie that is a real guilty pleasure of mine. My own review can be found here.

At Laura's Miscellaneous Musings there are reviews of Ziegfeld Follies (which I’m now tempted to buy) and Green Dolphin Street (which I know I should get around to seeing).

Riding the High Country has a review of an Anita Ekberg western, Valerie. I had no idea she’d ever made a western but it sounds like an interesting movie.

Real Weegie Midget Reviews has a review of what sounds like an absolute fascinating Bing Crosby TV movie, Dr Cook’s Garden. A dark chiller with Bing has to be worth a look.

As far as my own blogs are concerned, at Cult Movie Reviews I’ve done write-ups on the wonderfully stylish French crime/adventure thriller Fantomas (1964) and the amusing Matt Helm romp The Silencers (1966).

At Vintage Pop Fictions I’ve reviewed Lionel Davidson’s humorous 1960 spy novel The Night of Wenceslaus (on which the very entertaining 1964 movie Hot Enough for June was based) and Robert van Gulik's excellent historical detective story The Chinese Nail Murders.

At Cult TV Lounge you’ll find my thoughts on the most infamous episode of The Avengers, A Touch of Brimstone and one of the original Six Million Dollar Man TV movies, The Solid Gold Kidnapping (which is much more James Bondian than the TV series).